News

Obama's security state on steroids



12 June 2013

"You can't have 100 percent security and also then have 100 percent privacy and zero inconvenience."

So said President Barack Obama in defence of US government programs to track phone and internet data for millions of American and foreign users. Last week, The Guardian newspaper reported that the National Security Agency had been data-mining millions of phone calls within the US. The next day, The Washington Post revealed the existence of PRISM, a program to trace internet activity conducted on popular platforms such as Google, Apple, and Microsoft.

In pointing to the balance between security and liberty, Obama continued, "We're going to have to make some choices as a society."

Many Americans thought they had already made those choices when they voted for Obama in 2008. Seven years into the war on terror and the expansive surveillance state it spawned, civil libertarians in the US were thrilled to hear candidate Obama speak out in support of personal privacy and government transparency.

In casting their ballots for the constitutional law professor, Obama voters thought they were choosing a civil rights advocate who would build a durable set of rules to safeguard their rights. Instead they got a politician who would build a legal framework to safeguard government power.

On taking office, Obama promised his would be "the most transparent administration in history". Vows of candour and restraint resonated with an electorate that had grown tired not only of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but also of the domestic costs of the broader war on terror.

Symbolised by the far-reaching USA Patriot Act, the extension of government power that accompanied that open-ended war seemed, by 2008, like overreach. Warrantless wiretaps, secret courts, classified legal memos justifying torture: the combination of surveillance and secrecy drew condemnation from the Left and the libertarian Right. It fuelled Ron Paul's presidential campaigns and bolstered the case for Obama's candidacy. After all, Hillary Clinton had voted for both wars and the Patriot Act while then state senator Obama decried both. For those looking for some relief from the Bush years, Obama seemingly represented change they could believe in.

And indeed, things have changed under the Obama administration -- and not just because the US government is now trawling through your Facebook, Skype, and Gmail accounts. The security state under Obama has not only grown stronger, it also has gained a set of constitutional defences that George W. Bush could only fantasise about: more oversight conducted in secret courts and committees, more classified legal memos justifying greater surveillance.

No wonder John Yoo, author of the legal defence of torture during the Bush years, recently sang Obama's praises in conservative magazine National Review.

Nor have the administration's attacks on US civil liberties been limited to the revelations of the past week. The past five years have provided ample evidence that the President has little interest in curtailing the powers of the executive.

Take the frosty relationship between Obama and the press. Discontent has been rising in the fourth estate since Obama's first term, when the President's limited press availability began to draw unwelcome comparisons to Bush.

Those comparisons intensified last month when news broke that the Justice Department had been pulling phone records for Associated Press reporters. Hot on the heels of that disclosure came word that Justice had named a Fox News reporter a "criminal co-conspirator" to track his emails and phone calls. At The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza remarked of the Fox News case that "it is unprecedented for the government, in an official court document, to accuse a reporter of breaking the law for conducting the routine business of reporting on government secrets".

Whistleblowers have had it even worse. During his 2008 campaign, Obama called for more protections for government whistleblowers. He called their leaks to reporters "acts of courage and patriotism", arguing they "should be encouraged rather than stifled as they have been during the Bush administration".

Yet the Obama White House has been no haven for whistleblowers. The administration has prosecuted more Americans under the 1917 Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined.

Nor is the administration ashamed of its zealousness. On Thursday the Director of National Intelligence called the actions of the PRISM whistleblower "reprehensible". All this bodes ill for Edward Snowden, 29, the contractor who leaked the NSA and PRISM documents.

Obama's security state on steroids has created some strange bedfellows.

The damage the Obama administration has done with its wholesale attack on privacy and transparency cannot be overstated. It hobbles the free press as reporters and sources grow wary of government retribution. It halts would-be whistleblowers from revealing wrongdoing. And as trust in government is at an all-time low in the US, it heightens Americans' suspicions of federal power.

This is the great irony of the Obama's presidency: elected by a coalition seeking to prove government can be beneficial, he has shown the country just how menacing a powerful government can be.


Dr Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and a visiting historian at the University of Miami.


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